Political Junkie: The Impact of the Iraq Reports Lawmakers are considering how recent progress reports from Iraq will affect war policy. Has testimony from Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker changed opinions in Congress? In this edition of the Political Junkie, guests and callers discuss the prospects of new political strategies for the war.
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Political Junkie: The Impact of the Iraq Reports

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NEAL CONAN, Host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After two days before Congress, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker held a news conference here in Washington today and did media interviews. Tomorrow night, President Bush makes a primetime speech to the nation where he's expected to endorse both the assessment that there's been real progress in Iraq and the proposal to drawdown to pre-surge troop levels by next July.

It is far from clear that the general, the ambassador, and the president will persuade the American people. Public opinion polls show that fewer and fewer Americans believe the war can succeed, while more and more want the troops to come home. As we'll hear in a few minutes though, there are important nuances in those views.

Has the testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker changed opinions in Congress? Has it changed your view? Is the war the central issue for next year's elections?

Our number, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later in the program, George Packer of The New Yorker magazine will join us to talk about his new article on Iraq called "Planning for Defeat."

But first, the politics of Iraq. We begin with our political junkie, Ken Rudin. He's NPR's political editor and joins us every Wednesday here in Studio 3A.

Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And do you think that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker changed minds on Capitol Hill this week?

RUDIN: No, they still have the same minds they had when they came. Actually, the real question is not so much they changed American voters' minds but Congress' minds, especially the Republican Party because, you know, like my wedding night, we all awaited this moment when Petraeus and Crocker were going to have this statement where they had to say, we're talking about progress, progress on the ground in Iraq. And ultimately, not much was different.

I mean, there was some signs of progress, because of Al Anbar Province has some signs of, you know, improvement. But for the most part, it was the same old, same old. And the Republican Party, which of course lost badly in 2006 mostly because of the war, feels that they're going to 2008 with the same kind of ammunition, which is not much.

CONAN: Yet every - a lot of Republicans continue to support. They said, look, this is evidence that it is working. And every Republican presidential candidate seems to say, we need to stay there for the longer rather than the shorter haul.

RUDIN: Well, of course, every presidential except - every candidate except Ron Paul.

CONAN: Ron Paul, yeah, excuse me.

RUDIN: But I mean, if you look at the senators - you know, Lugar and Warner and Hagel and Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, all said yesterday that, you know, is this really - is it working? And is this worth the sacrifice that we're making, and what is the end result? And ultimately, I get a sense that these senators did not get a satisfactory answer.

CONAN: Even Elizabeth Dole, Republican from North Carolina. Senator Dole was talking about can't we move forces out of the line of fire of the sectarian conflict and put them on the borders to prevent suicide bombers coming in from Syria or weapons coming in from Iran.

RUDIN: I mean, she's one these 21, 22 senators who - Republican senators who are up for reelection next year. And whether she has a tough race or not, the point is more and more Republicans are getting nervous and antsy about it.

CONAN: Yet, as you've counted the votes, there's clearly not enough support for Congress to vote a timetable for withdrawal.

RUDIN: That's absolutely true. And Norm Coleman, a very endangered Republican in Minnesota said the same thing. He said that, you know, for all my reservations about what's going on and my concerns about what's going on, I'm still not going to vote for a date certain. But there are some indications that Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, may be looking for some kind of a compromise, may be withdraw or take away some of that date-certain, time- certain language in any kind of bill if they can get some moderate Republicans to sign on to an anti-troop bill.

CONAN: That's not going to satisfy some anti-war Democrats, though.

RUDIN: No, not - you see, that's the pressure on the other side. We saw a full- page ad by MoveOn.org that the Republicans latched on and were actually joy - gleeful to see. It was basically calling General Petraeus General Betray-Us and yuck, yuck, yuck. And a lot of people - a lot of Republicans almost were happy to see something like that, because...

CONAN: You know, Senator Cornyn issued a measure on the floor of the Senate to denounce the measure.

RUDIN: And Mitch McConnell gave a major speech to the Republican. The minority leader basically tried to get - take back the offensive, which they lost a long time ago on this war.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. But when General Petraeus says we're going to start pulling Marines out of Anbar Province this month and recommends the withdrawal of one those five extra Army brigades as - before Christmas, not to put too a fine point on it, doesn't that take a bit of the wind out of the Democrats' sails? Withdrawals are starting.

RUDIN: Well, but at the same time, they're talking about - and President Bush will probably talk more about this tomorrow in his primetime speech - 30,000 troops out by July. But that basically lets us back - puts us back where we were last February when we had 130,000 troops on the ground in Iraq. So a lot of members of Congress, including many Republicans, say, we're back to where we started. There is actually no change from last February to next summer.

CONAN: Now, we were talking about nervous Republicans last spring. They're still nervous, you say, but not nervous enough to vote against the war.

RUDIN: Well, that's the tight rope they're on, as well. I mean, Democrats may be pressured from the left, from the MoveOn left and also, you know, there's a front-page article in the Times said this week that said that most Americans don't support - don't trust President Bush or the Democratic Congress. They trust the military leaders on the ground.

So that's the box that the Democrats are in, but at the same time, as we said, we have these vulnerable Republicans who have very angry and nervous voters back home and they have to see to what they want as well.

CONAN: Now, it was Congress who invited General Petraeus to come back in September to tell them how the surge was going. But it was an extraordinary spectacle, basically, the president of the United States relying on the persuasive powers of a general, knowing, I guess, pretty well that his own are pretty well used up.

RUDIN: Well, you know, it's funny. It was interesting. Watching Petraeus and Crocker testify on Monday before the House, it seemed like Petraeus almost had his way. Of course, you didn't have as many presidential candidates in a House as you do in the Senate. But I think both parties, both the Democrats and Republicans, were more skeptical, more - asked more probing questions in Tuesday's appearances of Petraeus and Crocker.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Andy Kohut. He's the president of the Pew Research center and director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. He's been kind enough to join us here on Studio 3A.

Andy, good to see you.

ANDREW KOHUT: I'm happy to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Now, I assume it's too early to get any readout on public opinion polls to see how people are reacting to what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker had to say.

KOHUT: I think it is too early. First of all, I have to hear the president. And what the president says in relationship to what Petraeus says, even if it just I agree with him, it's going to make a difference. Whether he'll make it better or worse in terms of Bush's very low credibility with the American public on the war in Iraq remains an open question. But I don't think there are any polls out saying that these Petraeus recommendations are flying or not flying.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KOHUT: But, you know, there's a pretty strong set of opinions about Iraq in one respect. The public, for now close to two years, have been calling for American troop withdrawals. We've been tracking two trend lines. How well is the war going and should we stay or should we go?

And back in 2005, the middle of 2005, we saw the percentage of people say the war is not going well equal and exceed the percentage of people saying it's going well. Well, for a while, people were divided on whether we should stay or go. But as that - as confidence in the war effort dwindled and assessments of it dwindled, we have an ever-larger percentage of people saying we should get out as quickly as we can. That's the simple part. The complicated part is two- fold. First all, when you ask people, well, what do you mean by get out as soon as...

CONAN: As soon as we can.

KOHUT: ...can, most people say well, you know, in a gradual sort of way. Very few people say we should up and go. And among the people who say we should stay, most of those people say, you know, I think we really need some kind of timeline. So opinion is anything but clear. And complicating the politics of this is that there's this huge partisan gap in the way people judged the course of the war, the chances of success and whether we should go and stay. This is not Vietnam, where everyone mostly had the same opinion.

You've got a 40-point gap on will we succeed or not between Republicans and Democrats. So the constituency - constituents of the Republicans who are running for the president or have to get nominated from their parties, are quite different in those who are facing Democrats or independents.

RUDIN: Andy makes a good point. But also, there's a big gap among the Democrats running for president themselves. Barack Obama today in Iowa is talking about starting withdrawal of troops immediately and all troops out by the end of next year. Hillary Clinton...

CONAN: He didn't - all combat troops. He didn't say all troops.

RUDIN: All - right. All combat troops. But Hillary Clinton says she expects combat troops to be in Iraq during her presidency, which of course begin - would begin in 2009. And Joe Biden says to pull out - well, not precipitously, but by the end of next year is fool hearty. So even the Democratic Party - the Democratic presidential candidates are split on this.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KOHUT: But, you know, it doesn't seem to make a difference. In the poll that we did last month, we asked people if the Democrats, if their party was pushing hard enough, and we got a difference in opinion. And the people who said they were pushing hard enough versus those who said they were not pushing the president hard enough, there's no difference in preferences for the candidates. It's exactly the same.

Hillary Clinton has her same lead among the more vocal opponents of the war - the pushers - as she does among the people who say that the Democrats are doing fine on this issue.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. Our guests, Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. 800-989-82255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's start with Kevin(ph). Kevin's calling us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

KEVIN: Hi. Maybe a contrarian view in terms of the political popularity of the war. But first of all, President Bush's popularity is higher than the Congress. And if you ask the question - it's all about the question, if you were to ask me the question as a supporter of the war, do you want to bring the troops home? I would wholeheartedly say to the pollster, yes, I want the troops to come home. Of course, you want them to be healthy, you want them to come home and return to the lives they had before the war. But if you ask the question, do you want victory in Iraq? I would answer that question as well, yes.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KEVIN: And so those two things are in conflict depending on how you analyze it. And I would just say that I believe that the popular support of the war is broader and deeper than many of the analysts suggest. And I think...

CONAN: Andy - let's get a response from Andy Kohut. He is the president...

KEVIN: Sure.

CONAN: ...who formulates these polls.

KOHUT: Well, the question isn't quite do you want the troops to come home. The question is should we keep troops there until the situation is stable or should we take them home as soon as possible. And that's why you get this difference of opinion. Your other critique of public opinion was I missed it. What was the first challenge that you make?

KEVIN: It is that Bush's position is weak. And I would say that Bush's position is certainly weak by any historical measure.

KOHUT: Oh, on the Congress. The problem with that...

KEVIN: ...higher than the Congress.

KOHUT: The problem with that Congress comparison is it's an evaluation of the institution, an 18 percent rate. The Congress - only 18 percent rate of the Congress, well, and 29 percent of the president, but the Democratic leaders have approval ratings in the 30s. So an apples-to-apples comparison is not 18- 29, it's 29-32 or 33.

There's no denying that the president - this Congress has not met expectations, the Democrats haven't met expectations, but they haven't fallen to Bush's level. Bush has taken a really hard hit on the basis of the war in Iraq and other things, as well.

CONAN: Will you be asking in your next poll, Andy, have you been convinced that there is a way towards success or even victory in Iraq?

KOHUT: We ask that question on a regular basis. And what we want to know is will these numbers change? A year ago, 57 percent said we were going to succeed in Iraq, it's now only 41 percent. Well, that changed. Well, that perception changed.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that call, Kevin.

KEVIN: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center and NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. E-mail talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Later in the program, we'll talk with George Packer of the New Yorker magazine about his new article on Iraq and what a post-withdrawal Iraq might look like, different policy options.

Right now, our focus is on this week's progress report on Iraq and if it changed any minds. If you heard or read the testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, did it change your view? Is the war still the central issue for next year's elections?

800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

NPR's political editor Ken Rudin is with us, as he is every Wednesday. He writes the weekly Political Junkie column at npr.org. Also with us, Andy Kohut. He is the president of the Pew Research Center and directs the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Judith(ph). Judith is with us from Bloomington, Illinois?

JUDITH: Yes.

CONAN: Okay. I know there's one in Indiana, too.

JUDITH: Yes, I know. Thank you for taking my call. My concern is with - and I must give a grudging compliment to the Bush administration even without Karl Rove. Once again, they were able to pull off a brilliant maneuver of stagecraft by getting the president over to Iraq surrounded by adoring troops. He's still the commander-in-chief rock star.

What you didn't see, of course, was probably the other 50 percent of the troops that weren't so thrilled to have him in their presence. And then there was the train of legislators who made it to Iraq in August, who were squired around and well fed by General Petraeus in the Green Zone, and given a particular view of what's going on Iraq.

And then finally, after all of the difficult testimony, General Petraeus can only find time to do one interview. And that's a one way, you know, education of America's live presentation on Fox News with Brit Hume. And it seems to me, like, the administration has bypassed once again the media and Congress and has managed to take a powerfully visual positive picture straight to the American people...

CONAN: Well, it...

JUDITH: ...courtesy in Fox News.

CONAN: He's doing other media interviews today. They held a news conference at the National Press Club earlier today as well. And I think there'll be a lot of interviews. It's hard to say he bypassed Congress when he spent two days subjecting himself to cross-examination.

JUDITH: But...

CONAN: Your questions may not have been hard, but you're right about - and Judith is absolutely right about this campaign where President Bush went not to Baghdad but to Anbar province, a place that was written off, as he would say, a year ago as being a total failure.

RUDIN: And one thing that Judith didn't mention, and probably not a coincidence, but General Petraeus testified on September 11th. And, of course, the administration's argument from day one has been linkage of the effort in Iraq to what happened on September 11th, 2001, and this being the sixth anniversary of it, I think, there was also part of the time schedule.

CONAN: A lot of effort on the part of the Democratic leadership in Congress to, in fact, have them begin on September 10th, but the second day of testimony yesterday, of course, on the 11th. Judith, go ahead.

JUDITH: And I have one other concern. And that is I just retired on the 1st of September after 22 years of military service, and listening with a military ear to the couching of the language and the euphemisms, and it just struck me as very disingenuous in some aspects of the testimony that it wasn't very straightforward.

And it just concerned me as a citizen that, you know, the military is doing what the military is very good at, and that is briefing Congress in a way that changed the picture of the way they want the Congress to see the picture.

CONAN: All right. Judith, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JUDITH: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Jim(ph). Jim is with us from Valley Forge in Pennsylvania.

JIM: Hello, I'm a big fan of the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

JIM: You asked about whether the war will factor into the elections, and I wanted to point out a year in advance that if a Democratic president comes along, even before they're elected, when it comes to the war, when it comes to anything, they're going to be called liar, liar, liar.

Look at what happened to John Kerry. There's the usual list of criticisms that people critical of the war have. Something very simple that gets overlooked was that in 2004, what got George Bush reelected was that the war was over. There was no explanation beyond that. How anyone thought that the war was over in 2004 really escapes me and it's a very, very simple lie. And when does the language get used to these half-truths and deceptions in what I call lies.

CONAN: Well, 2004 - I don't think President Bush argued that the war was over.

JIM: It's true, he did.

CONAN: He argued that he was a much stronger leader and able to prosecute it better. It was an argument that didn't really resonate too much in 2006.

RUDIN: And perhaps the mission-accomplished thing is maybe is what Jim is thinking about. The thought that the mission, as originally instituted was over.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KOHUT: Yeah, and the public was divided at best about the war. There was still a fair degree of confidence that in the end we would succeed. And there was a good deal more confidence in President Bush's stewardship of the war against terrorism there is today. The Republicans, generally, and the Bush administration, specifically, do not have the same credibility that they had going into the 2004 election. And they can't play the same kinds of cards. In fact, Iraq is likely to be a very difficult issue for the Republicans during the campaign and then an equally different - difficult issue for the Democrats should they win the presidency and have to preside over what comes next.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks very much, Jim.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And let me ask you also about the importance of what the president has to say tomorrow night. He was quoted on his trip to Australia as saying, you know, boasting about the good news as he saw it from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, we are kicking butt in Iraq, he said. Butt was not the word he used. If he's that triumphalist in his address to the people tomorrow night, that's going to be a problem, isn't it?

KOHUT: I really think it is, because most people look at the reports, they see these casualty counts, they see, you know, 15 people killed yesterday in Sadr City. It's hard to make the case that there's been a real transformation of the war generally. Although there's been progress in the Anbar in one segment of Iraq.

The bigger - from my point of view, looking at public opinion, the bigger case that Bush has to make is the second opinions that the public has about leaving Iraq. More people - if we leave Iraq soon, more people say that there will be a civil war. More people think that terrorism will be enhanced. Of course, many people think terrorism will be enhanced if we stay there.

But there's a lot of costs that the public sees associated with leaving Iraq, even the people who say we should get out. Iraq is a little bit like a cold. People want - the American public wants to get rid of this cold, but they want to do it in a way in which there's fewer side effects from the medicine and it's the least painful treatment possible. And people see a lot of pain associated with getting rid of this illness.

RUDIN: And I think you're absolutely right. And I think if President Bush spoke more about sacrifice, I think his case would be much better. But the fact is, he has been the optimist from the beginning of - from the get-go on this. And I think while the American public has changed its view on the war, the president has not changed his tune and that has hurt him.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. That, by the way, is Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor. Also with us, Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press. And let's talk with Rod(ph). Rod's with us from Kernersville in North Carolina.

ROD: Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

ROD: What I would like to know is - I hear the administration and other supporters of the war talk about victory. And I really don't know what victory is. And another thing, I hear them talking about, what are the consequences if we leave? Well, what are the consequences? No one ever states the consequences, if there are any. And, you know, to me it's just a play on words and no one is ever definite in what's going on. That's my question.

CONAN: Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Yeah. Well, actually, John McCain is up in New Hampshire today, campaigning and he said over and over again that we could not afford anything less than victory.

Now, while he has not been able to define victory, and I don't think anybody has been able to define victory. But consequences, he certainly has talked about. And he said - and I believe, I think, Joe Biden had said it, too, that if we have a precipitous withdrawal or we have a calamitous withdrawal, that eventually, we're going to have to go back in with more troops. So, I think that that's the consequences. And at least that the McCain people feel that if we don't get this so-called victory now, it will just have to come back with our children and our grandchildren.

CONAN: And Rod, I have to say, I spent two days listening to General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker in front of Congress, they did not use the word victory. They used the word success, and the way they defined it is a stable Iraq that's at peace with its friends and relatively low levels of violence. And that's a long way from the democratic transformation of the Middle East that people - some people were talking about four years ago.

RUDIN: Small D democratic. Right.

CONAN: Small d democratic, yes. But nevertheless, that's what they were talking about in terms of victory. They were also asked a lot about the consequences of an American withdrawal. Again, they put it in terms of a, you know, quick pullout from Iraq, not in terms of a, you know, more graduated, phased withdrawal. But nevertheless, they were talking about humanitarian disasters and all sorts of calamities in Iraq.

ROD: Well, success is how you define it. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

CONAN: I guess. Andy Kohut?

KOHUT: No. I would just echo what you were saying, Neal, that originally - in fact, we used post the opinion questions, not leave until there was a stable democracy. Well, we dropped democracy a while ago and just made a stable country, because the...

ROD: Absolutely.

KOHUT: ...the definition has changed from a democracy that would spread throughout the region to a country that is more or less at peace and certainly not of the chaotic situation that it is today.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And not a haven for terrorists.

KOHUT: Right.

CONAN: That's another way they define the success. Rod, thanks very much for the call.

ROD: Thank you.

CONAN: And joining us now is Democratic Senator Robert Casey, the junior senator from Pennsylvania. He seats on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and joins us by phone. Senator Casey, nice of you to be with us today.

ROBERT CASEY: Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And you spent many hours yesterday listening to General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Do you think they changed minds?

CASEY: Well, I'm not sure they did. I think that remains to be seen. I do think that my impression after listening to both the ambassador and the general on - in their House testimony - not the questions, I wasn't able to see that, but reading about the questions and hearing their statements, reading the press accounts and then sitting through several hours yesterday. And one of the main reasons why I had to wait for several hours because I'm - Senator Webb and I were the last two to question them. So we had ample opportunity to listen to questions and answers.

But my general impression was that the bottom-line for the - what the general said and what that meant for the policy was more of a stay the course policy. Not really any kind of change that's significant.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CASEY: And that's unfortunate. And I think too often, though, in a situation like this, we - the focus tends to be, on this case, the witness who's a star witness and he's a man of great ability and character. But this is still really the president's policy and the president drives this policy. And that's why I think the debate has to center on the threshold question of whether the Bush policy should remain and, in fact, or should there be a change? I think there's overwhelming support for a change. The support begins to fall off when details are presented.

But I think there's overwhelming support for a change in course. And I think that means a couple of basic things that the policy should mean a more focused mission, recognizing that you cannot have a quick withdrawal. You can't have anything close to what the Republicans alleged, which is a precipitous withdrawal. You're talking about, I think, a phased redeployment and one that's done responsibly and one that well planned and executed.

But in addition to that, that there be a concentrated effort on al-Qaida and the terrorists in Iraq, even though al-Qaida is only 15 percent of the attacks...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CASEY: ...but we still have to focus on them. And also the training mission be uppermost in our minds and also made much more of a priority than it is now.

CONAN: Hmm.

CASEY: It's kind of ironic that the person leading the whole fight now, General Petraeus, his expertise in the time he spent was in training. And I think that's unfortunate that when there was - seemed to have been more of a focus on training before that it's not proceeding in the way it should when you have level one readiness at such a...

CONAN: Of Iraqi forces, at such a...

CASEY: ...of Iraqi forces.

CONAN: ...low level, yes. We're talking with Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania. Also with us, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center and our own political junkie, Ken Rudin.

You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Senator Casey, the reason you're one of the last senators to get around to being questioned - getting your questions asked on the committee is you just elected last year to the Senate.

CASEY: That's right.

CONAN: How much of a role did the Iraq war play in your election? How much do you think it's going to play in the elections of '08?

CASEY: I think a prominent role in both. I think if you're narrowing down issues in 2006, it was certainly within the top two in terms of what people are thinking about and what inform their vote. And that's why when people across the country get frustrated and they ask what have Democrats done, they have all the right in the world to do that. I do think, though, that our caucus and, I think, certainly, I and others in the caucus have worked very hard to push a change in course. That means voting - debating and voting on measures like the Reed-Levin legislation, the amendment that we voted on this summer.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CASEY: Senator - meaning Jack Reed and Carl Levin. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, our leader, had a similar piece of legislation back in the spring. And I think every time we do it, we pick up more Republicans and we make some progress, but it's slow, it's incremental, and it's frustrating, but that's the nature of the Senate. I do think, though, that there is - and I've been very critical the president will continue to unless and until he changes his policy. But while that's going on, well, we've got to make it every clear the difference between his policy and what we stand for.

There are a lot of Republican senators - I wouldn't say a lot, it's a few right now - that are considering other ways to get to a consensus that would mean a real change in course to get to 60 votes. So we're going to keep working with them and keep working with our Democratic colleagues to change the course of this war.

RUDIN: Senator, what do you make of the debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, many of whom proposed getting the troops out of Iraq yesterday?

CASEY: Well, I think that's going to be a continuing debate in the context of the campaign. And I think that's particularly difficult because it is the middle of the campaign. And I think that's unfortunate that we have - you have candidates kind of pushing each other and sometimes driving each other to take positions that frankly they would probably rather have more time to deliberate, more time to discuss it with colleagues. And - but it's just - it's the nature of intense campaigns now. And I think that the most of the debate is going to center around what happens in the Senate in the next week or two. And I think the presidential campaigns will - and candidates will play a role on that, but I think it's going to be mostly driven by leaders in the Senate that have been spending the most time on this.

And with Republican senators who seemed to be leaning towards doing something, that is a clear change in policy. And I still think there's hope for that. But there's a still long way to go.

CONAN: Senator Casey, thanks very much for being with us today.

CASEY: Neal, thank you and say hello to Andrew as well.

CONAN: Okay. I will.

CASEY: I love his work.

CONAN: Democrat Bob Casey seats on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He joined us today by phone from the Capitol.

When we come back, we're going to be talking with Republican Ron Paul, a presidential candidate himself, and see if his mind was changed by the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. So Ken Rudin, stay with us. Andy Kohut, stay right here.

We'll also be talking George Packer, the author of "The Assassins' Gate," a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His new article in the New Yorker magazine is called "Planning for Defeat."

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

But still with us is Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center and our political junkie Ken Rudin. And joining is now Republican Ron Paul of Texas, a member of the House of Representatives, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and a Republican presidential hopeful. He's committee also listened to General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker earlier this week. Congressman Paul, nice of you to join us today.

RON PAUL: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And do you think their testimony changed any minds?

PAUL: Not really. I think it was a lot of politicking going on, a lot of grandstanding. I don't think it changed anybody's mind. I was - the only thing I was wondering about when the reports were being given is what if they truly had a negative report, what would have been the odds of them, actually, coming to the Congress and saying, oh, guess what, things are slightly worst than they were a year ago. The odds of them saying that would have been slim to none. So I don't think a lot - people put in a lot of stock in this type of report. But there's a lot of politicking going out on both sides of the aisle, I believe.

CONAN: You're well known as the one Republican presidential candidate who opposes the war in Iraq. Did you not believe General Petraeus when he said that the military objectives of the surge are being achieved?

PAUL: Well, I think, from his viewpoint, he believes he was telling the truth. And maybe their objectives are slightly different than mine. I want it to end. I want them to come home. I want, you know, us to be in better shape. But, I guess, from his viewpoint, I'm sure he can talk himself into that, and I don't think I'd put it into the category of blatant lying, I just think it's deception, even deceiving oneself. And I think that neoconservatives who promoted the war actually deceived themselves in all the goodness that they're perpetuating around the world, I think that they believe in that mission. I just think they're wrong.

CONAN: You see largely the Republican Party and most - all of the other presidential nominees campaigning strongly on President Bush's policies. Do you think your party is heading down the path to defeat?

PAUL: You know, I think they've - the signs were that they're going in the wrong direction certainly last fall, but I see no indication that they are willing to reassess their foreign policy position. And I keep reminding them they did quite well with the foreign policy that I endorsed. George Bush ran on it in 2000. I was comfortable when he talked about a humble foreign policy and no nation building and no policing the world. And that position generally sells well with the public. And even when we were leading up to World War I and II, that's the kind of language that the presidents ran on. It was always for peace. And certainly, Eisenhower and Nixon ran to get - end wars, the Korean War and Vietnam War.

So it's a very, very positive position, yet the Republicans have dug a hole for themselves. War is not popular. They think it is. And at the initial stages of the war, their popularity goes up and people rally around the flag and things look great. But quickly, this can be forgotten. Even George Bush Sr., as popular as he was from the Persian Gulf War, it meant nothing for his next election. He still lost the election. So it's a bad political position to be in for the Republican Party now, and if they keep the same position and they don't elect somebody or nominate somebody with a different position, I can't see how they could win.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There's an emotional word that Senator McCain used in the hearing yesterday in the Senate. I know he's used it on the campaign trail as well. He says, we can't set a date for surrender. Surrender is pretty powerful word.

PAUL: You know, that's just a play on words to try to neutralize the people who say that it makes no sense to continue a failed policy. If it was wrong to go in, my argument is it wrong to stay, especially if it's not going well and a lot of people are dying. To me, it's like going in there and starting a fire. And our troops being there, is like pouring gasoline on the fire. And so I would say that our position has made it much worse by being there. Our country is jeopardized. Our financial situation is jeopardized. So everything tells me, it doesn't make any sense whatsoever to perpetuate and continue a policy. That it's a failed policy and we shouldn't have been doing it anyway.

CONAN: Congressman Paul, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: Ron Paul, a Republican of Texas who sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and hopes to be the Republican presidential nominee.

Andrew Kohut, I wanted to ask you about that word. In a campaign, you can get those emotional appeals. Surrender - is that something you can poll for?

KOHUT: Well, I think you can poll and find that the American public gives a negative reaction to that word. But whether the use of that word as an argument against a war that people feel the costs are too high and the value is too low is another question altogether. And I'm not convinced that people can be - that public opinion can be shaped by that very powerful use of language.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RUDIN: Although I will say, though, you know, that John McCain in New Hampshire today it's the no surrender tour. And a new poll today in the Washington Post shows that McCain has made some progress in the national polls since the debate. So whatever his message is or whatever his ultimate chances are, they seem to be improving at least at this juncture.

CONAN: Thanks very much to you both. Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor. You can read his column, The Political Junkie at npr.org. Or, if you must, you can listen to him again next Wednesday here on TALK OF THE NATION.

RUDIN: If you have to.

CONAN: If you have to. Andy Kohut, thanks very much for being with us today.

KOHUT: Happy to be with you.

CONAN: Andy Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center and Director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

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